Friday, March 06, 2009

Brown & Obama - an awkward relationship

The British press have ridiculed Gordon Brown's US visit

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown arrived in the United States on Tuesday with the hope of discussing a “global new deal”. But his effort to gather support to kick-start the world economy seemed to be getting a cold reception before it had even begun.

Snubs and criticism

Besides it being his first visit to the U.S. since Barack Obama became president, the Prime Minister’s itinerary was being downsized and rescheduled. Hopes of a joint press conference in the Rose Garden evaporated due to the heavy snow in Washington, though officials did not explain why the event was not moved inside. Some saw the move as a snub to the Prime Minister who has been particularly critical of the U.S. financial regulatory system.
During his monthly press conference last month [Feb 18th], Gordon Brown called for “an international system of regulation”, something he said was “absolutely essential”.
But his attempts of persuading others to join his plan have so far fallen on deaf ears. And it has not been helped by continued criticism of other countries. In his February statement he said there was a “failure in the American regulatory system.”

“If you take the sub-prime mortgage market in the United States of America, sub-prime mortgages, half of them were sold to Europe. So they were sold on by providers in the United States of America to Europe. But they were regulated by the American system and they were called Triple A. So the people who were buying these investments from America were buying what they were told was the most worthy investment of them all, Triple A rated, and there was a failure in the American regulatory system.”

However, while he said Britain was more tightly regulated, he conceded there was still room for improvement. “Our regulatory system has been a better system but it is still not good enough to meet the changing challenges of the times,” Gordon Brown said.

Despite his criticism of America, the Prime Minister has also praised Obama for his efforts in tackling the financial crisis saying they were doing “similar things” to what Britain was doing.
The atmosphere of Brown’s visit has already been soured by what some see as pointed gestures about the state of Britain’s so called “special relationship”. Barack Obama has already removed a bust of Winston Churchill that once sat in the Oval Office. And in what might be seen as another snub, former Prime Minister Tony Blair was invited to the national prayer breakfast in Washington last month and referred to by Obama as a “good friend”.

The White House insisted that a special relationship still existed between Britain in an attempt to brush off speculation. On his arrival at Andrews Airforce base the Prime Minister did receive a rather frosty reception in the form of extremely cold temperatures reportedly as low as minus 10 degrees Celsius.

'The special relationship'

His meeting with Rabbi Arthur Schneier of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation was somewhat warmer. During the visit Brown insisted the downturn could “only be resolved by people working together”. The Rabbi gave him a pot of honey in the shape of an apple in recognition of Britain’s work in tackling world poverty. But the Prime Minister will need more than a pot of honey to help him save global markets which have crashed to all time lows in recent days.
In an earlier interview with National Public Radio [NPR] he said that the priority was to “clean up the banking system”. But most of his discussions with Barack Obama were held behind closed doors. In a short question and answer session after the meeting Obama reaffirmed his belief in the special relationship between the U.S and Britain. “Rest assured it is not only strong but will get stronger as time goes on,” Obama said. He added that the relationship was important to the U.S and Great Britain. “It’s not just important to me but also the American people,” he emphasized.

Obama echoed the words of the British Prime Minister saying a “global new deal” was important. But he said the US banking sector had been dealt a heavy blow and economic recovery would not happen overnight.

Brown thanked Obama referring to their “partnership of purpose” which was founded on shared values and a need to solve world economic problems. He said that a “Big regulatory change” was needed. He was nonetheless positive saying, “There is a possibility of a global new deal in the next few months”.

Both leaders emphasized the need to work together with Obama declaring, “In this world we need to build alliances and not act unilaterally”. It was also important that all major G20 countries worked together with a common set of principles he said [BBC].

Despite much press speculation it appeared, that at least publicly, the two leaders were affirming their strong alliance.

'Weird and sinister'

However, Brown is certainly not running in the footsteps of his predecessor who was much admired in the US. Although he was welcomed by strong applause during his speech to congress, it was not in league to that seen in Tony Blair’s day.

The BBC’s Nick Robertson talked of 17 standing ovations, two less than that received by Prime Minister Blair. However not all pundits saw the reception as being so rapturous. Sky’s Adam Boulton described the so-called standing ovations as merely “seventeen bursts of applause”.
Blair was often described as Bush‘s poodle and recent cartoons have depicted Gordon Brown similarly as a dog sniffing at the butt of America. One could even descibe his speech as somewhat sycophantic. But his apparent obsequiousness did not go down well in the UK. Indeed his performance was even described as “dysfunctional” by one politician on the BBC’s Question Time. Shadow International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell said the interviews in the Oval Office were “rather dysfunctional and rather needy”, though he thought that the Prime Minister’s call to avoid protectionism was important. Writer and feminist Germaine Greer was less than impressed by Gordon Brown’s delivery at Congress saying it was “Weird and sinister”. She said the speech was full of clich├ęs and described it as “over the top”.

Indeed, he had barely begun his address before the praise for America drooled from his lips. "The US is and always will be an inspiration to me and the whole world," Brown said in his opening remarks. And the praise didn’t stop there. “America is an irrepressible nation" he said. "America is a nation with the vision to protect & preserve our planet Earth", a nation whose “spirit” would not be destroyed by terrorists, Brown declared. And of course there was the obligatory tribute to the "sacrifice of American soldiers who have given their lives" in two world wars, as well as Afghanistan & Iraq.

After the praise, and the announcement that Senator Edward Kennedy had been awarded an honorary knighthood by the Queen, Brown then launched into his bidding.

'Building for the future'

He said it was a "time for renewal“ and “ building for the future". "Let us agree rules and standards of accountability and transparency," he said and called on America to “renew our special relationship” and get “every continent playing their part for a global new deal”.
He may well find it an uphill struggle to get the full support of America despite his stated optimism. "I have never before seen a world willing to come together so much," Brown said, while insisting that it was time to “seize this moment” and “build tomorrow, today” [Full speech]

'Saving the world..'

While the reception was generally warm there were moments when some members abstained from applauding the British leader. In fact he received only half-hearted applause when he called for agreement on overhauling the world of international finance at the G20 talks in April.
It should perhaps also be noted that several dozen members of Congress failed to attend the speech. Their seats in the chamber were taken by House and Senate staff and other guests.
In December as the world recession was just beginning to bite, Brown was mocked for his slip-up in Parliament when he said, “The first point of recapitalization was to save the banks that would have otherwise collapsed. And we not only saved the world...”. His attempts to correct himself by saying “save the banks” were drowned out with laughter. The faux pas was then capitalized upon by opposition leader David Cameron who exclaimed, “Well, it's now on the record. He is so busy talking about saving the world, he has forgotten about the businesses of this country.”
There are many who now feel he forgot about “this country” as he fawned for America and its new charismatic, but seemingly disinterested, leader.

'printing money'

Back home the Bank of England announced another interest rate cut and a plan to inject billions of pounds into the economy in the form of “quantitative easing”. It was not met with huge enthusiasm except perhaps by politicians. Twitter, the micro-blogging service, was alive with comments suggesting the proposal to effectively print money could lead to rampant inflation and risked a Zimbabwe style economy developing. The interest rate cut, which was halved to 0.5%, has also created consternation amongst many Britons. Savers will see little point in putting money into banks which give so little return on their investment.

It remains to be seen if Brown’s global new deal and other initiatives will have any effect on the economy, or if he can pull nations together in fighting the global recession.

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